Regular, nutritious meals may become a challenge for people with dementia.
As a person’s cognitive function declines, he or she may become overwhelmed with too many food choices, forget to eat or have difficulty with eating utensils.
Proper nutrition is important to keep the body strong and healthy. For a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia, poor nutrition may increase behavioral symptoms and cause weight loss.
The basic nutrition tips below can help boost the person with dementia’s health and your health as a caregiver, too.
- Provide a balanced diet with a variety of foods.
Offer vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean protein foods.
- Limit foods with high saturated fat and cholesterol.
Some fat is essential for health — but not all fats are equal. Go light on fats that are bad for heart health, such as butter, solid shortening, lard and fatty cuts of meats.
- Cut down on refined sugars.
Often found in processed foods, refined sugars contain calories but lack vitamins, minerals and fiber. You can tame a sweet tooth with healthier options like fruit or juice-sweetened baked goods. But note that in the later-stages of Alzheimer’s, if loss of appetite is a problem, adding sugar to foods may encourage eating.
- Limit foods with high sodium and use less salt.
Most people in the United States consume too much sodium, which affects blood pressure. Cut down by using spices or herbs to season food as an alternative.
People with Alzheimer’s or dementia do not need a special diet. As with anyone, eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet is important for overall health.
As the disease progresses, loss of appetite and weight loss may become concerns. In such cases, the doctor may suggest supplements between meals to add calories.
Staying hydrated may be a problem as well. Encourage fluids by offering small cups of water or other liquids throughout the day or foods with high water content, such as fruit, soups, milkshakes and smoothies.
Possible Causes of Poor Appetite
- Not recognizing food. The person may no longer recognize the foods you put on his or her plate.
- Poor fitting dentures. Eating may be painful, but the person may not be able to tell you this. Make sure dentures fit and visit the dentist regularly.
- Medications. New medications or a dosage change may affect appetite. If you notice a change, call the doctor.
- Not enough exercise. Lack of physical activity will decrease appetite. Encourage simple exercise, such as going for a walk, gardening or washing dishes.
- Decreased sense of smell and taste. The person with dementia may not eat because food may not smell or taste as good as it once did.
Make mealtimes easier
During the middle and late stages of Alzheimer’s, distractions, too many choices, and changes in perception, taste and smell can make eating more difficult. The following tips can help:
- Limit distractions.
Serve meals in quiet surroundings, away from the television and other distractions.
- Keep the table setting simple.
Avoid placing items on the table — such as table arrangements or plastic fruit — that might distract or confuse the person. Use only the utensils needed for the meal.
- Distinguish food from the plate.
Changes in visual and spatial abilities may make it tough for someone with dementia to distinguish food from the plate or the plate from the table. It can help to use white plates or bowls with a contrasting color placemat. Avoid patterned dishes, tablecloths and placemats.
- Check the food temperature.
A person with dementia might not be able to tell if something is too hot to eat or drink. Always test the temperature of foods and beverages before serving.
- Serve only one or two foods at a time.
Too many foods at once may be overwhelming. Simplify by serving one dish at a time. For example, mashed potatoes followed by meat.
- Be flexible to food preferences.
Keep long-standing personal preferences in mind when preparing food, and be aware that a person with dementia may suddenly develop new food preferences or reject foods that were liked in the past.
- Give the person plenty of time to eat.
Remind him or her to chew and swallow carefully. Keep in mind that it may take an hour or longer to finish eating.
- Eat together.
Make meals an enjoyable social event so everyone looks forward to the experience. Research suggests that people eat better when they are in the company of others.
- Keep in mind the person may not remember when or if he or she ate.
If the person continues to ask about eating breakfast, consider serving several breakfasts — juice, followed by toast, followed by cereal.